Saweto, Peru: Ending Impunity in the Rainforest

Saweto, Peru: Ending Impunity in the Rainforest

Saweto is located in Peru’s remote Ucayali province and shares a border with Brazil.

Finally, a step towards justice for environmental defenders: formal murder accusation delivered in Saweto murder case.

A massacre in the jungle

When indigenous leaders from the remote community of Saweto –Edwin Chota, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quincima Meléndez and Francisco Pinedo–were brutally slain deep in the Peruvian Amazon in 2014, Barack Obama was only halfway through his second term in office, nobody had ever heard the term ‘Brexit’, and it was still a year before world leaders gathered in France to sign the UNFCCC Paris Accord. The world has changed. But for the Asheninka leaders murdered by unscrupulous loggers on September 1, 2014, their tireless quest for fundamental justice continues.

For more than five years, the families of the four murdered leaders have slogged back and forth on a tiny outboard motor (called peque peques) through the heart one of Peru’s most lawless areas, the Tamaya River basin in Ucayali, to appear at hearings, ask the local prosecutor for updates on the investigation, and, more often than not, ask the police and military for protection from the very people who killed their fathers and husbands. There were dozens of meetings in Lima, a case submitted to the ILO, and tireless advocacy by Jorge Rios’ daughter, Diana Rios. 

The perpetrators have not been prosecuted and continue to live and loot valuable timber from the forests around Saweto’s territory. At night they drink, taunt and threaten the surviving community members, who survive by collecting food daily from their small farms and fishing the rivers.

Impunity no more

However, on Wednesday, October 30th, 2019,  there was a turning point in the case, proving that, for once, justice can be served for people who have endured unfathomable grief, frustration and hardship.

Despite initial international outcry about this case in 2014, declarations protecting environmental defenders, and in depth reports from Global Witness and other organizations about the risks that indigenous peoples face protecting their land and resources, the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators is extremely rare, and it’s almost unprecedented in Peru and in Latin America to see a prosecutor publicly name the intellectual authors of these types of crime. 

According to Tom Bewick, Peru Country Director for Rainforest Foundation US, “The prosecutor’s accusation represents legitimate justice in every sense of the word. The persecution and killing of Mr. Chota and indigenous environmental defenders like him is not the result of random violence or an accident. Rather, in most cases, it is precisely because people like Jose Carlos Estrada want them silenced. Now, finally, he is charged as directing and financing this horrible crime.”

The murder of the four Asheninka leaders was carried out at the behest of the Estrada brothers who work for the regional logging company Eco Forestal Ucayali S.A.C. 

After years of pressure from Saweto, Rainforest Foundation US and other allies supporting this case, prosecutors have implicated the financiers and authors of this crime using the very words of the deceased Edwin Chota from his submitted complaints. 

Diana Rios’ father was slain alongside Ashaninka leader and environmental defender, Edwin Chota.
Diana is today an outspoken leader for the community of Saweto in its quest for justice.

 A young daughter picks up the fight

Diana Ríos, the daughter of one of the four murdered leaders, traveled to New York in 2014 to receive the Alex Soros Prize for Environmental Activism. The award paid tribute to her community’s resolve. The community was terrified and traumatized, and the families refused to go home. Nevertheless, Ms. Ríos said she was determined to return and take up her father’s fight.

 How it all began

Saweto’s troubles started in 2002, when the Peruvian government awarded logging companies the right to profit form millions of hectares of the country’s rainforest, much of which has been inhabited by indigenous communities like Saweto for centuries, who have struggled to achieve land rights. 

Greedy, aggressive logging companies like Eco Forestal Ucayali S.A.C, managed by the Estrada brothers, pounced on this opportunity to ravage the forests of valuable timber, like Mahogany. This dynamic pitted invading loggers directly against indigenous communities fighting for ancestral land rights. This was the case of  Saweto, whose president, Edwin Chota, filed multiple complaints to the regional government and police, providing documentation of illegal logging in his area. The complaints led to threats, which Mr. Chota also rigorously documented. His complaints fell on mostly deaf ears in the government, who took no substantive action. 

Then, on September 1, 2014, walking in the jungle near his community on the Brazilian border, he and the three other activists were shot dead and left to rot. Normally, the remoteness of crime against a poor indigenous leader several days boat ride from the nearest telephone would have been forgotten. But Saweto did not allow that to happen.

Hope for other Indigenous and environmental defenders?

In this accusation, Chota’s legacy and his quest for recognition and protection of Indigenous territories lives on. Sadly, too many environmental defenders, Indigenous and not, continue to be murdered across the Amazon and the world, according to a recent Global Witness report,  in 2018 alone, 164 land and environmental defenders were reported killed, which averages out to more than three per week. Many more were attacked or jailed.

The Saweto community and the relatives of the murdered leaders, like Edwin Chota, hope this verdict will lead to more prosecution and more justice for Indigenous communities Peru and the Amazon. 

This shows that their lives mean something. And it will show that they are not silenced, but that their words matter for justice, and for all of us who care about vulnerable indigenous communities. Without whom, we can never protect the Amazon.

Now, however, the fight goes on. As this case moves forward, Saweto will be threatened and the perpetrators of this crime and others like them will try to silence Saweto. Please stay tuned.

To contact Tom Bewick, Peru Country Director, please email:

Who Was Edwin Chota and the three Indigenous leaders who died defending their land? Watch this video.

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Guyana at a turning point

Guyana at a turning point

Will Guyana seize the opportunity and embark on a green development path for the benefit of all?

With its vast forests, modest economy, and relatively low population, Guyana is not a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the region. All that is about to change because Guyana  is on the cusp of a major oil boom that is set to transform the economy and will have significant implications for society and the environment.

Exxon Mobil, Hess and the Chinese oil giant CNOOC are now beginning to exploit one of the largest off-shore oil finds in recent years, with production set to start in 2020.

Several new oil fields have been uncovered this year alone, putting Guyana on track to exceed established producers like Mexico and Norway. The World Bank expects the country’s GDP to grow 34% in 2020, up from 4.6% in 2019.

Avoiding the “Resource curse”

Economic booms, such as the one anticipated for Guyana, have often led to a “resource curse,” and with it corruption and conflict. History is full of examples of countries whose natural-resource wealth led to less economic success. Revenue from extracting raw materials might be mismanaged or embezzled by government officials, or siphoned off by foreign corporations. The windfall might crowd out investment in other parts of the economy and make goods and services more expensive. And the country’s fiscal and economic fate might depend on volatile global commodity prices, especially for fragile and less diverse economies. All told, local populations can be left with little to show for their resources except a degraded environment and a disgruntled electorate.

Opting for the right way

Strengthening governance of the oil sector through strong institutions, robust transparency, and public participation will be key. At Rainforest Foundation will keep a close watch, along with our partners on the ground in Guyana, on what the implications will be for indigenous peoples and the conservation of forests.  

Read our latest brief for a summary of the current situation with petroleum development and its implications for Guyana.

While the proceeds from the oil sector will accrue via the Natural Resources Fund directly into the general budget, civil society organizations in Guyana will need to ensure that the government lives up to the principles of transparency and good governance, and meets the objectives of the Green State Development Strategy.

Protecting Guyana’s wealth on land: its vast forests

With the exploitation of large offshore oil reserves, Guyana is contemplating its development path, with forests and indigenous rights hanging in the balance. With a rapid increase in GDP will come pressure for increased investments in infrastructure on land. Roads, big infrastructure projects, large-scale agriculture and commercial development are unlikely to be limited to the coastal region where the bulk of the investments is expected due to its proximity to the oil extraction and processing facilities.

About 87% of Guyana is forested and large swaths of the countryside are the traditional lands of the nine different Indigenous Peoples that depend on the natural resources of the forest for their wellbeing. Guyana’s identity is also intimately tied to the country’s rich Indigenous heritage. It would be a tragedy if the Guyanese people invested their new found wealth in the type of development that will forever and inalterably change the country’s rich natural diversity and the unique nature of the country’s Indigenous cultures.

Read our latest brief on what we see are some of the opportunities and challenges, as well as indigenous proposals to advance rights based sustainable development.

For additional information about the Rainforest Foundation’s programs and partners in Guyana, please visit our country page.

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Rainforest Foundation US is tackling the major challenges of our day: deforestation, the climate crisis, and human rights violations. Your donation moves us one step closer to creating a more sustainable and just future.

VIDEO: How satellites and drones help Indigenous Peoples protect the Amazon forest

VIDEO: How satellites and drones help Indigenous Peoples protect the Amazon forest

Rainforest Foundation US and If Not Us Then Who release new documentary from the Amazon that show how indigenous environmental defenders are proving to conserve forests using technology.

The Facts

  1. About 35% of intact forest landscapes in the Amazon are managed by Indigenous communities.
  2. Yet, in 2018, more than 30 environmental defenders were killed, including several Indigenous leaders.
  3. The Amazon loses the equivalent of about one soccer field of rainforest every minute.
  4. 4. Indigenous-led forest monitoring using affordable, high-tech solutions deliver “measurable reductions in deforestation,” according to Columbia University researchers.
  5. This technology has the potential to be scaled up and deployed to other parts of the Amazon and beyond, resulting in important reductions in deforestation across the tropical belt.

What’s at stake
Indigenous communities living across the Amazon have known for centuries how to protect the forest.

However, intensifying industrial slash and burn agriculture, large-scale cattle ranching, and indiscriminate resource extraction are threats that require new tools and new allies to confront these challenges. About 17% of the Amazon forest has been destroyed over the last 50 years and scientists agree that an additional 3 – 8% deforestation could lead to a tipping point in which up to 60% of the Amazon would lose its tree cover and become a savannah-like landscape.

This change would be catastrophic not just for the Indigenous Peoples but to all of us who depend on the forest’s ability to capture and store carbon and maintain its rich biodiversity.

The Solution: High Tech meets ancestral traditions
Fortunately, satellite imagery, inexpensive remote-controlled drones, and GPS enabled smartphones are making it easier for Indigenous communities to patrol their territories remotely and stop deforestation in the Amazon.

These high tech tools are used to track threats to the forest in near real time, resulting in “measurable reductions in deforestation,” according to Columbia University researchers who recently unveiled the preliminary findings of a year-long randomized controlled trial sponsored by Rainforest Foundation US and the Organization of Indigenous Peoples Eastern Amazon (ORPIO). The study was carried out across 250,000 hectares of Indigenous territories in the Peruvian Amazon.

The preliminary results of the study were presented on September 24th at Ford Foundation where scientists, donors, program managers, and representatives from various Indigenous Communities from Central and South America discussed their work and the challenges they face.

The event also featured an exhibition of images by Laurence Ellis of Indigenous Peoples from the site where the study was conducted in the Peruvian Amazon. Ellis’ photos are featured in the upcoming Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Document.

In a panel moderated by actor and climate activist Alec Baldwin, the discussion centered around the potential this technology-driven solution could have in helping protect Indigenous Peoples and the rest of the Amazon from deforestation.

A system to reduce deforestation
The data gathered and analyzed by Columbia University was generated using a four-prong intervention strategy developed by Rainforest Foundation US, ORPIO, and the World Resources Institute.

Turning information into action:

How it works

1. Indigenous technicians are trained and work in regional hubs to collect and analyze satellite data, which alerts them to possible deforestation.

2. Once a threat has been detected, these Indigenous technicians relay the information to “community forest technology monitors,” who use a smartphone app called Forest Watcher to locate the areas in their territories where deforestation may be occurring.

3. These representatives then go into the field with their team to investigate the area, on foot and using drones, to verify the alert with photographs which the app Forest Watcher then geotags and catalogues.

4. Monitors then report their findings back to their community assembly, the highest authority, which determines as a group whether the deforestation is authorized or unauthorized. If it’s the latter, action is taken—either through internal governance systems or by delivering the findings to the proper authorities.

About the study
Between early 2018 and May 2019, researchers at Columbia University measured the impacts of the program, specifically on governance and deforestation rates. Tara Slough, the principal investigator of the study, announced the preliminary findings during the conference. Slough and her team found that not only did the surveyed communities participate in monitoring at high rates, but their monitoring activities increased and deforestation decreased over time, suggesting that maintaining and scaling such programs is a viable long term solution.

The message is clear:
Monitoring with technology reduces deforestation, positively impacts governance, and is in high demand.

Scaling up
In light of this system’s potential to reduce or stop deforestation entirely, the logical question is to ask if this solution can be scaled up, how quickly, and at what cost? Rainforest Foundation US calculated that it costs about $5 to protect a hectare of forest and about $1 to avoid one ton of carbon emissions in the study area. However, these costs could vary based on a number of factors when the technology is scaled and replicated elsewhere.

Nevertheless, at these prices, community monitoring can be an extremely powerful tool to reduce deforestation and avoid carbon emissions. Currently, investment in forest protection accounts for only about 1.5% of the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to mitigating climate change annually. Rainforest Foundation US and our indigenous partners are determined to deploy this technology to the Indigenous territories that need it most. 

Supplemental content:
This video offers a synopsis of the key moments of the event held on September 24th.

To see a complete video of the event, please visit our YouTube channel.

“Study evaluates the impact of indigenous community tropical forest monitoring with technology
and resource governance in the Amazon” (A 4 page PDF synopsis of study)

Estudio evalúa el impacto del monitoreo en bosques tropicales de comunidades indígenas en la Amazonía que emplean tecnología y gobernanza de recursos” (documento en Español en pdf de 4 paginas que explica el estudio).

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Support Our Work

Rainforest Foundation US is tackling the major challenges of our day: deforestation, the climate crisis, and human rights violations. Your donation moves us one step closer to creating a more sustainable and just future.

Daniela supports the overall administration of Rainforest Foundation US’s work in Peru, with a recent focus on supporting the program’s COVID-19 response. Prior to joining Rainforest Foundation, Formerly, Daniela administered the Casa Andina hotel network in Peru. She holds a degree in Business Administration and is a native Spanish language speaker.